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Reducing lameness in the national flock – a never-ending story?

A five-point plan was developed to tackle lameness in sheep: avoid, treat, quarantine, cull and vaccinate

A push for healthy sheep was top of the agenda at the Sheep Health and Welfare Group (SHAWG) conference held virtually at the end of 2020. The conference stressed how health is a foundation for good welfare and that good health will also reduce environmental impact through improved productivity and efficiency. The conference enabled attendees to reflect on how much the industry has changed in the past 10 years, and how something as simple as foot trimming, which used to be a routine management procedure in the sheep industry, is now a thing of the past in many flocks. This is thanks to the continual research in the industry and the key findings by Kaler et al. (2010a) that foot trimming actually slowed healing times of foot rot lesions in sheep.

Further to this, research published by Wassink et al. (2010) showed that treating lame sheep appropriately and in a timely manner resulted in more benefits to the flock than just an improvement in lameness. Ewes treated with both systemic and topical antibiotics within three days of identifying a lameness caused by foot rot had a better body condition, reared more lambs and reared lambs at a faster rate. This has major implications in terms of welfare, economics and also each flock’s carbon footprint.

In 2012, the sheep sector was set the target to achieve lameness prevalence of 2 percent or less by March 2021 by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC). It is common knowledge that a lame sheep has poor welfare and when using the five freedoms approach to assessing welfare, they lose up to three of their five freedoms: “freedom from pain”, “freedom from disease/injury” and in severe cases “freedom to perform normal behaviour”. So, with this in mind, it is essential to take a whole flock approach to treating and preventing lameness in sheep to minimise the occurrence and severity of disease. Subsequently, in 2014 the five-point plan for tackling lameness in sheep was announced by FAI Farms.

What is the five-point plan?

FIGURE (1) The five-point plan, developed by FAI, focuses on three main areas to meet the challenge of reducing lameness: reduce disease challenge, establish immunity and build resilience

The five-point plan focuses on three main areas to tackle lameness in sheep. Although designed primarily for the reduction of foot rot and scald, which are the most common causes of lameness in sheep, it is applicable to all infectious causes of lameness in sheep. The three key parts of the plan are reducing challenge, building resilience and establishing immunity in the flock (Figure 1). So, if we break this down into its five components they are:

  • Avoid – avoid and reduce the spread of infection within the farm. This can be as simple a step as moving mobile handling units to a fresh area of pasture or placing gravel or lime over areas prone to poaching, such as water troughs and gateways
  • Treat – treatment is essential and early detection and treatment is crucial. Kaler et al. (2010b) found that sheep treated within four days of a new lameness had a higher success rate of recovering from the lameness. The five-point plan recommends treating within three days of identifying a lameness, so this study supports the thoughts that prompt treatment of lameness is essential. Spray marker is a very useful tool to spray on the affected limb and spray a new “dot” or “line” on the limb to indicate numbers of treatments. Kaler et al. (2010b) also found that foot conformation is related to the ewe’s immunity to disease and sheep are more susceptible to disease once conformational changes have occurred (Figure 2)
FIGURE (2) Chronic hoof conformational changes can occur with foot rot, such as widening of the toe and blunting of toe end, which are linked to increased likelihood of recurrence of lameness
FIGURE (2) Chronic hoof conformational changes can occur with foot rot, such as widening of the toe and blunting of toe end, which are linked to increased likelihood of recurrence of lameness
  • Quarantine – avoidance of bringing infection into the flock via quarantining of stock is essential. A minimum 28-day isolation is recommended for newly purchased animals. Avoid buying lame sheep or those with misshapen hooves
  • Cull – culling of repeat or chronically lame sheep will in turn help to reduce the disease challenge within the flock and thus help avoid the spread of disease within the farm. Many farmers take up the “three strikes and you’re out” approach which is aided visually by marker sprays at treatment
  • Vaccinate – vaccination is the final piece in the puzzle and will help to establish immunity within the flock. There is currently only one licensed foot rot vaccine in the UK, Footvax, and it is commonly used both in the face of an outbreak and as a preventative measure. Footvax for farms with mixed infections of foot rot and contagious ovine digital dermatitis (CODD) has been shown to reduce levels of CODD infection in the flock (Duncan et al., 2012)

Response to the five-point plan

Some sceptical vets and shepherds may say we wouldn’t get all farms following the five-point plan. However, the idea of no foot trimming was quite controversial 10 years ago and is now thought to be widely accepted. So, what do we know about the uptake of the five-point plan?

A summary of farmer-reported lameness prevalence in sheep flocks is shown in Figure 3 and shows us the prom-ising steps the industry is making towards the less than 2 percent target by March 2021.

FIGURE (3) With 10.6 percent mean farmer reported flock prevalence of lameness in ewes in the UK in 2004 to 3.2 percent in 2019, the industry is making promising steps towards the less than 2 percent target by March 2021 (Kaler and Green, 2009; Winter et al., 2015; Grant et al., 2018; Posser et al., 2019; Best et al., 2020)

Prosser et al. (2019) showed us that 29.2 percent of flocks in the UK were vaccinated against foot rot a year after the introduction of the five-point plan. A survey conducted at the end of 2018 and early 2019 showed that vaccine use has increased to 36.1 percent (Best et al., 2020). Only 5.8 percent of farmers in the study adopted all five points of the five-point plan. The research showed that farmers were implementing a median of three points out of five. Targeted culling based on recurrence of lameness was undertaken on 63 percent of farms and those farms actively culling repeat offenders were more likely to adopt the “avoid” point of the five-point plan. Promisingly, the results show that 71.8 percent of farmers would treat a lame sheep within three days of noticing, emphasising the general understanding of the importance of early treatment of lame ewes to prevent conformation changes in the foot occurring. Although the study showed that 80.1 percent of farmers did not routinely trim feet, worryingly they report that 51.3 percent of farmers were trimming lame sheep’s feet, so perhaps the message about foot trimming has not truly been conveyed to farmers as first thought.

Lewis and Green (2020) report that they did not find any managements beneficial to lambs that are different to those undertaken for ewes. However, they stressed that “best practice” should be implemented with lameness in lambs just as it would be expected in lame ewes.

It is still certainly an ongoing situation in regard to reducing lameness prevalence in sheep. Weaving the five-point plan into flock health planning sessions will help make it easier and more accessible for farmers, enabling the opportunity to discuss challenges farmers may face with implementing certain parts of the plan. Green et al. (2020) demonstrate that working together with flocks helped farmers to understand and adapt to “best practice” and that it is cost effective.

The future of lameness control in sheep is exciting with ever increasing knowledge and genetic advances to help the industry reach its target by March 2021.

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